Western motifs in modern times

By Sarah Gianelli
EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Cyrus Walker, 27, grew up in a small, rural Vermont community a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. After one year at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, Walker took some time off to travel, work and explore, landing in Bozeman eight years ago, still of an “age when you’d piss on an electrical fence on a dare.”

Before finishing his degree at Montana State University in 2016, Walker had already started his graphic design business, Cyrus Design Co., and has since created the logos for many area businesses, including Big Sky’s Rad Bikes, and vintage-style poster art for ski resorts, Yellowstone National Park and rodeos.

Today, the young creative is at a milestone moment when the scales are starting to tip from a focus on commercial art toward that of fine art.

Drawing from advertising styles of the past, Walker creates custom poster art for rodeos around the West, including this year’s Big Sky PBR. A limited number of these prints are still available for sale. Stop by the Outlaw Partners office or call (406) 451-4073 for details.

Walker’s roots are in graphic design—something he attributes to spending a lot of time with an uncle in the advertising business—but he’s also a talented illustrator, a skill not all designers have.

“You need to have a knowledge of form, line, texture and composition,” said Walker, who took fine art classes at MSU in addition to design prerequisites. “All of these basics make you a more well-rounded artist and designer.”

Walker has always been attracted to what he calls “the golden era of design” between the 1930s and 1950s—when all advertising was illustration-based—and this aesthetic comes through in both his commercial and fine art, and work blending the two, like the custom old-timey posters he creates for rodeo events all over the West.

Walker said he’s an “analog guy” at heart, but has embraced the digital as well. And he finds ways to make his process more difficult. “It’s fun to use an image and try to back-peddle from that as much as you can—it’s an interesting twist.”

As with the rodeo posters, Western iconography is often the focal point of Walker’s fine art, but through his mixed media approach he’ll take an old photograph of a cowboy, for example, and place it in a visually contemporary context.

After blowing up and transferring a vintage photograph to a canvas, Walker will draw and paint over it, incorporate paper for added texture, resulting in the juxtaposition of the old with a bright, flashy pop-art aesthetic, a style that artists across the West and Southwest can be found working in today.

Bozeman is the biggest city Walker’s ever lived in; his hometown is a place that everybody’s leaving, not migrating toward. Art-making is Walker’s way of trying to make sense of what he is seeing around him—remnants and relics of the cowboy lifestyle amid the rapid growth and change of Bozeman; a place that prides itself on its rustic, outdoorsy appeal while development paves over more and more of it.

“For me it’s a reflection of what we’re going through now and the new wave of folks coming here,” he said. “The romantic ideal of the West is still very much revered, but I think it’s something people are trying to capture but don’t necessarily live anymore. When I see a new development in Bozeman, I’m torn because it’s going to be a fantastic building in a great location, but it’s replacing the classic Western culture … it’s amazing how fast it all changes.”

Art is what comes out the other side of Walker’s processing of the contradictions he perceives in his external world.

“I’m reflecting people and themes that I pick up on by living here, the things we can’t quite put our finger on,” Walker said.

Playing the devil’s advocate, I asked Walker if he was focusing on Western subject matter because it has market appeal in the region, and we launched into a philosophical discussion about co-opting native material as a non-native.

“What does it even mean to be a Western artist?” he asked. “Does it have to do with what you’re painting? Where you’re painting? I think that you should have the freedom to paint what you feel, not only what you know. If I was only allowed to create work about what I grew up around, I’d only be allowed to paint pictures of dairy cows.”

You can see more of Walker’s art at Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky and online at cyrusdesigncompany.com.